When I first started learning guitar, I really wanted to be able to solo and improvise. I was told to do that I need to know my scales up and down the guitar neck. I especially heard of this scale called the “pentatonic” scale. Supposedly, if you knew this scale it was instant “money,” or rather, it was the key to soloing success and you’d be all set.
So I started learning my pentatonic scale patterns and major scale patterns all up and down the guitar neck. I got to know these patterns in every single position pretty well. But still, I felt like I had no mastery over the guitar fretboard. All I knew was a bunch of patterns, and I didn’t know how any of it connected or related, let alone, how to make it sound beautiful.
Perhaps you’re wanting to master and learn the guitar fretboard, or you are pretty rusty and you wish you knew it better than you do. Here are three exercises you can incorporate into your practicing. These exercises assume you know some of the theory behind guitar scales.
For this exercise, you are going to choose any scale. For this example, let’s choose a C major scale. Choose a starting position for your C major scale. For example, start on the “C” note on the 8th fret of the low E string.
Once you’re ready, start the metronome at a slow tempo (maybe around 60 – 70 BPM). From your starting point on the 8th fret, you’re going to play any notes in the C major scale as perpetual eighth notes in time with the metronome.
In other words, it doesn’t matter what note you play or where you play it as long as it is a note within that scale. Try not to play the scale pattern just up and down. Jump to any notes within a C major scale but play everything as eighth notes in time with your metronome.
In a sense, the exercise is sort of like organized chaos. You’re staying within the C major scale but you’re not just playing a pattern up and down the neck. Your jumping between scale positions all the way up and down the neck perpetually as you play eighth notes. Once, you’ve done this with your major scales, go to melodic minor, and then harmonic minor. You can do perpetual motion with any scale.
Ascending & Descending Circle of 4ths
For this exercise, you’re going to start on a C major scale. You can choose any position you want to on the fretboard. Let’s start again on the “C” note on the 8th fret of the low E string.
You’re going to ascend up the C major scale in that position on the fretboard and then once you reach the top you’re going to descend with an F major scale. Then, you’re going to ascend with a Bb major scale and then descend with a Eb major scale. You’re going to continue in this pattern in the circle of the 4ths until you’ve played every key.
Basically, you are changing the scale from ascending to descending by an interval of a 4th. So if you follow the exercise all the way through you’ll cover all these keys in this order:
C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E, A, D, G
And again, once you’ve mastered your major scale in ALL positions, go on to this with melodic minor and harmonic minor.
One Octave Circle of 4ths
This is similar to the past exercise except you’re only going to ascend and descend up only one octave. So if you started on the “C” note on the 8th fret of the low E string, you will ascend a C major scale all the way to the “C” note on the 10th fret of the D string. When you get there, you’ll descend in F major all the way back down to the “C” note on the 8th fret of the low E string.
Each octave you will play in one scale position only covers three strings (if you look at the C major scale ascending picture above, it’s basically the lowest green dot to the next green dot in the scale pattern). Practice this exercise on all string sets (set #1: E, A, D; set #2: A, D, G; set #3: D, G, B; set #4: G, B, E) and all scale positions for all scales. Whew! That’s a lot!
As you can see, these exercises are pretty endless and give you a lot of room for practice. I like these exercises because they get you away from the pattern of scales. Sure there’s a pattern to all of it, but you really have to be thinking on your feet and thinking about the individual notes and how to change from one scale to another. You can’t merely get by knowing some patterns. You’ll be better off because you’ll be able to see how the notes relate to one another and you’ll be able to navigate much better across the fretboard as you try to apply this to improvising or soloing.
Brett McQueen is a full-time music student, guitar player, songwriter, and blogs in his spare time. Brett is passionate about teaching free beginner’s guitar lessons so other guitar players can take their playing to the next level and reach their goals.